Commissary customers in Japan and South Korea are paying an average of 49 percent more for fresh fruits and vegetables than they paid at this time last year, according to a limited report made available by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

And the research found that commissary prices for produce items in those countries are 57 percent higher, on the average, than local market prices — in spite of a contract requirement that customers get an overall savings of at least 15 percent compared to with the local civilian grocery stores.

The contract for providing fruits and vegetables for sale in commissaries in Japan and South Korea requires more savings for about 35 high-volume "core" produce items — that they be 34 percent lower than the local market for those items in South Korea and 30 percent lower in Japan. Examples of core items are apples, strawberries, onions, mushrooms, lemons and oranges.

The research, which included photos of the commissaries' entire produce sections, also documented some rotten, moldy produce at Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base, South Korea.

Customers have complained about the higher cost and the quality of some of the produce since a new contract began in November that changed the way the Defense Commissary Agency ships produce to commissaries in Guam, Japan and South Korea. The change was made to save the government the approximately $48 million a year for shipping that produce to the Far East. Instead of the government paying the cost for shipping fresh fruits and vegetables that can’t be procured locally in Asia, that cost is now wrapped into the price customers are paying.

It all may change soon: Congressional appropriators have included provisions that would increase the commissary budget, with House appropriators specifically adding $48 million for the shipment of produce to Pacific commissaries. Those provisions are working their way through the legislative process.

In the study released by Hunter, a U.S.-based produce supplier commissioned private market research in May in anticipation of future commissary contract opportunities in Asia. Commissary customers were paid to take photos of the entire produce sections and prices at two commissaries in Korea and one in Japan from May 9 to May 26. The company put out a call through spouse networks for people willing to take part in the market research. The customers, all spouses of service members or veterans, also visited local civilian grocery stores in Japan to take pictures. No spouses were available to visit local grocery stores outside the military bases in South Korea, one of the limiting factors of the research.

Because the research results indicated that overall, prices were higher than local prices and higher than last year's commissary prices before the new contract, the results were provided to Hunter.

cut for space; The consultants also hired a spouse to take pictures at the Fort Myer, Va., commissary, where many high-ranking officers and their families shop. Their comparison showed that prices were twice as high in the Asian commissaries as they were at Fort Myer on the days surveyed. In one of the most egregious examples, they said, green onions were priced at $0.39 each at Fort Myer, while at Osan AB and Camp Humphreys, green onions were $3.19 each.

The effort provided a snapshot of prices about six months after the commissary agency started its new system.The report pointed out some notable exceptions where commissary prices were cheaper than local markets, such as lemons, limes, pineapples and green onions. Guam was not included in this market research but may be included in a future survey, according to a consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He, and Hunter’s staff member Sources, including a member of Hunter's staff, declined to name the company that funded the market research. The consultant acknowledged the study is limited for a variety of reasons. For one, the comparison was limited because 17 of the 35 core (basic) produce items at Yokota Air Base commissary were not available in the local Japanese store. But he noted that comparisons the week of May 9 showed that 15 items were more expensive at the commissary and two cost less at the commissary. For the week of May 26, 12 items were more expensive at the commissary, while four cost less. 

"It goes to show that the current contract arrangement is a scam," said Joe Kasper, chief of staff for Rep. Hunter. "The department needs to wake up and acknowledge just how much military families are being disadvantaged so some contractor can make a quick buck."

Commissary produce at Camp Humphreys
Commissary produce at Camp Humphreys

Commissary produce at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, was photographed by military spouses hired for a market study. The Defense Commissary Agency said in a statement: "It is quite clear some of the photographs have been staged or were taken at the end of the business day."

Photo Credit: A third-party consultant

Defense Commissary Agency officials discounted the results of the research.

"Concerning the anonymous report, which is eerily similar to documents prepared for the former contractor [Raymond Express International] when they unsuccessfully challenged the contract in several forums, while the report contains limited factual information; it misrepresents the contract, the overall quality of the produce, and skews the data," said DeCA spokesman Kevin Robinson.

"While some of the prices quoted in the report appear accurate, the fact remains that some prices are up while others are down, which is exactly what DeCA has repeatedly stated would occur," he said.

He gave some examples of price changes from DeCA's perspective, as of June 6:

JAPAN

  • Iceberg lettuce, 44 percent lower compared to the previous contractor’s price in October 2015
  • Russet potatoes, 15 percent lower
  • Strawberries, 8 percent higher

KOREA

  • Yellow peppers, 21 percent lower
  • Red peppers, 14 percent higher
  • Cucumbers, 20 percent lower

GUAM

  • Granny Smith apples, 27 percent lower
  • Asparagus, 38 percent lower
  • Rosemary, 3 percent higher

As for the quality issues, Robinson said, "It is quite clear that some of the photographs have been staged or were taken at the end of the business day."

The pictures provided for the research were taken by military spouses in those locations, hired to take pictures to document the prices and quality.

"I did not touch anything," said Julie Arens, wife of a contract employee at Osan Air Base who is an Army veteran. She was one of the spouses who took pictures for the research. "My goal was mainly to show prices," she said. "For them to say it was staged, or that I came late in the day to make them look bad … That is false."

She said she has raised concerns about the produce for months with local commissary officials and with lawmakers in Washington. "The only way anything is going to change is if someone who cares is loud and vocal," Arens said.

"I fight for this because of people on programs like WIC. They can't use WIC off base," she said.

The DoD Overseas Women, Infants and Children program is similar to the WIC programs operated by the states, providing vouchers for specified foods such as milk, vegetables, peanut butter and cheese, depending on nutrition needs, for low-income pregnant or postpartum women and children up to age 5. "It's unavailable for them to use it to buy fresh fruits and vegetables," she said, although they can buy frozen vegetables.

A bag of 10 apples, for example, may be more than $9 — and at least one or two of them are rotten, she said. She's learned that when buying lemons, limes or any citrus fruit or onions, she also has to check the condition of the produce touching each item, because it will quickly go bad when it has touched rotting produce.

In some cases, prices of produce in local stores is lower than that of locally-bought produce sold in the commissary, she said. A watermelon selling for $7 in local stores was more than $18 in the commissary. Watermelon prices have recently dropped to about $14 in the commissary, she said.

As for DeCA's prices quoted for June 6, she said, they dropped just before that date because of an official visit on June 6 by a contingent of congressional staff members to explore the issue.

"The weekend before they came, the price of watermelons dropped to $6, and the day after they were gone, watermelon prices were up to more than $10," she said.

Osan commissary officials have agreed to form a committee that includes spouses to open up lines of communication, helping officials get information to spouses and to hear concerns from the spouse community, Arens said.

cut for space: Spouses were instructed not to touch the items, the consultant said. In the report's methodology, it states spouses were told, "The goal of the study is to get a real-time understanding of commissary pricing, availability and quality in Asia during random visits throughout the study period. It is imperative that all information provided is objective and complete, without any editing, and requires that you take photos of the entire produce section to ensure a complete and accurate representation of the commissary under review."

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.